Simple. Biden outpaced Obama’s totals in 2008 and when he was reelected in 2012 because 1) the country has gotten more populous, 2) there was a lot of enthusiasm for voting this year and 3) much of that enthusiasm from Democrats was targeted not at Biden, but at Trump.
In 2008, the population of the United States was about 299 million. Four years later, it was up to about 309 million. Now, it’s over 330 million. The number of adult citizens — that is, those eligible to vote — has also increased, up an estimated 25 million since 2008.
Biden earned about 80 million votes as of counting. (This will increase given outstanding ballots in New York and California.) That’s 11 million more than Obama in 2008. Assume that two-thirds of the newly added adult citizens voted this year and that’s an addition of 17 million more people to the voter pool even ignoring issues of enthusiasm. Split that in half and Biden would just need to find 2.5 million more votes somewhere.
We can look at the boost for Biden in another way. Biden’s total this year is about 15 percent higher than what Obama got in 2008 and 21 percent higher of his total in 2012. Trump’s total this year is 23 percent higher than what former senator John McCain got in 2008 — and an equivalent 21 percent higher than what Mitt Romney got eight years ago.
Trump supporters will say that this is impossible, that Trump was clearly the focus of more enthusiasm. Given the president’s rallies, Biden should not have been able to keep pace.
But that’s wrong for two reasons. The first is that Trump’s rallies are being compared to Biden events which were specifically meant to be small. Why? Well, there’s a pandemic going on, as you’ve likely heard, and not everyone likely gained immunity to the novel coronavirus after an outbreak at their place of employment. Trump did and, given his indifference to the virus’s spread, moved ahead with his large events.
The second is that rallies aren’t a great marker of enthusiasm anyway. That’s true generally because getting 20,000 people to turn out in a heavily partisan area is only a tiny fraction of the actual voting population (if those 20,000 people are all able to vote, which is unlikely). It’s also true because people can be enthusiastic about voting without going to a rally.
In 2020, the preliminary data suggest that turnout relative to the adult-citizen population was likely higher than at any point in the last century. Indicators that enthusiasm was high emerged soon after the 2018 midterms and carried into Gallup’s final polling on the question.
What’s important here is that Democrats were as likely to say they were more enthusiastic about voting than past elections as they were in 2008. Republicans were more likely to say that than they were in 2008, helping push the overall turnout rate even higher.
Notice how the curve showing Democratic enthusiasm maps with the curve showing Democratic votes. High in 2008, down in 2012, flat four years later and then back up. This wasn’t 2016. Polls showed that Democrats viewed the 2020 election much as they did Obama’s first — with a lot more voters in the mix.
Again, this was heavily because of Trump. The president’s focus on goading the left and delivering for his base over his time in office helped make him the most polarizing president on record. Republicans loved him and Democrats hated him, as polling repeatedly showed. When Fox News asked poll respondents why they were supporting Trump or Biden, eight in 10 Trump voters said they were supporting him because they liked him. Four in 10 Biden voters said they were supporting Biden to oppose Trump.
In other words, even if Biden would not have matched Trump’s crowds had there not been a pandemic — which is probably generally true — it didn’t matter. A lot of the reason many Democrats saw the election as being so important was simply that they wanted Trump out of office, a motivation that was more important than the identity of the person who replaced him.
If any Trump supporter finds this dynamic hard to believe, that may be a function of the sort of isolation that Trump frequently suggests is a feature of his opponents. In 2016, it was red states in which people were the most likely to live in precincts with others who overwhelmingly voted the same way as them. In September, a Pew Research Center poll found that about 40 percent of both Trump and Biden supporters knew no one who was planning on supporting the other candidate. That was more true of Trump supporters who lived in more heavily Trump-supportive counties.
There are other likely factors as well. The expansion of mail-in and early voting made it easier to vote, likely meaning that some more infrequent voters cast ballots. After Trump’s narrow 2016 win, there were efforts introduced to encourage voting from Democrats who’d stayed home. Georgia’s Stacey Abrams has been given a lot of credit for helping to overhaul the turnout operation in that state, which Biden won.
Given all of the above, the math becomes easy. Biden outperformed Obama because there were more voters from which to cull votes. At the same time, enthusiasm was similar among Democrats in 2008 and 2020, in part because Democrats were so eager to see Trump ousted — and in part to avoid what happened in 2016.
If no one Scott Adams knows believes that could be true, that’s a reflection of the bubble in which Adams apparently lives, not of the reality of politics this year.